PROFILE: As we mark Apprenticeships Week 2022, former apprentice and our current Contracts Director Tony Pearce looks back on 43 years at McCarrick Construction

When did you start your apprenticeship at McCarrick Construction? And how has your career progressed to your current role?

In 1979, aged 16, I came in to the office which was then in the yard for an interview with Mr James McCarrick, Matthew’s grandfather, for a joinery apprenticeship. The joinery post was gone by then so I got the bricklaying apprenticeship instead. I was over the moon just to have got a job. I completed my apprenticeship in 1983 – then I spent seven years as a bricklayer and by 1990 I was managing sites. In 2000 I came into the office as Contracts Manager and later I was promoted to Contracts Director.

I manage our workforce and organise the day to day labour for all our contracts. I never for one moment thought I’d spend so much time in the office but construction nowadays requires much more paperwork than it ever did. I aim to be out on site visits between 10.30am and 3pm each day but unfortunately this is difficult to achieve.

What do you remember about the early days of your apprenticeship?

Once you left the yard in the morning, there were no mobile phones, there was no communication with the office. Sometimes we had phone lines installed in cabins on larger sites but as often as not you’d be dropped off on site in the morning with all your tools and materials and picked up in the evening. If you’d forgotten something there was no way to go back and get it. On smaller jobs you just got hand drawn drawings and descriptions from whoever had carried out the initial site visit, there were no digital photos as there are today. You really had to think for yourself.

There was no uniform, we just wore safety boots, jeans, a sweater, there wasn’t really PPE like there is now, no hard hats or high-vis, that’s one thing that’s for the better.

I was paid £21 per week and it was put into an envelope with a typed payslip which was folded over, and I had to live off that for the next week, it paid my board which was £8 and the rest was mine to spend as I wanted.

In college we had a bungalow as an ongoing project for the bricklaying and joinery apprentices to train on within the grounds. The building incorporated archwork and different brick bonds to allow each year’s intake different levels of experience. Once it was constructed it was taken down and the whole process started again.

I worked four years as an apprentice, in those days we spent the first year at college and worked on site when the college was closed for the holidays, then for the next two years we did one day a week in college on day release. After that we did an extra year to qualify as having an Advanced Craft, I really value that extra year and it’s not always offered as an option nowadays but I recommend it to any apprentice if they can get it.

What else has changed?

Well in one generation computer software has made things much easier. But the amount of information we need to process is on a different level in 2022. Now we know a great deal more about asbestos, we are all so much better informed about health and safety, we’re unable to carry out jobs we used to do without the right equipment, the right procedure, the correct paperwork. We had to update to digital to be able to keep up with all these new requirements, the industry couldn’t have improved everything we have by continuing on as we did.

Simple changes have improved things – nearly all power tools are 110v cordless now so there’s not the risk of tripping up or accidental electrocution. Dust extraction and water suppression has made a massive difference. Everyone is trained now not to go on a roof without the appropriate scaffolding for safety. I remember in the old days tying yourself onto a large chimney stack so you could get round it to repair it – you’d never think of it now.

Attitudes to teamwork have changed too. In those days as an apprentice your opinion was not welcome, backchat was discouraged. In fact the work we were doing was largely of a more residential type – garden walls, drives, extensions, smaller engineering works and housebuilding, so our elders had seen it all before and when problems came up they could come up with solutions quite easily and were most likely right. Since then we’ve broadened what we do and the construction world has changed, there are new materials, new regulations, completely new methods. Now, I would say I appreciate anyone who has any input at all into the problems we have to solve on site – all ideas are welcome and show initiative. Things are advancing all the time, it might be that a young one has a different perspective and can see something others can’t. It’s much more collaborative.

What mistakes did you make as you learned?

I remember as an apprentice to another bricklayer putting a wall up between two steel columns in a factory unit in Durham. The wall wasn’t straight and we were told to take it down, clean the bricks and rebuild it. I was angry with myself. I remember saying to myself that from that day on I won’t be pulling anything down again, ever. And I never did.

What are you most proud of?

I’m very proud that our apprentices are so well thought of. Anyone in the industry locally knows that an apprentice from McCarrick Construction has advanced knowledge. We can offer such a varied workload, they really do get a chance to do everything and now that they don’t do it in college it’s even more important. People forget that we’re training people up to be tradesmen of the future.

Really, I’m proud of each and every thing I’ve achieved here. I’ve been here 43 years, nothing was handed on a plate and you have good days, bad days, even bad weeks. But you make the best of it and I couldn’t have asked for a better employer.

What would you change for the apprentices of 2022?

Skills are getting lost. It’s not just putting a stud wall up, it’s all the complicated stuff that goes with it, staircases, roofs, the bonds, the hips. Manholes – these are bought in nowadays but there’s a skill to building a brick manhole. Chimney stacks, proper fireplaces. Our own apprentices do actually get the chance to learn these as we are involved in quite a lot of heritage projects but I’d prefer that all apprentices were taught traditional skills or the skills themselves will die out.

Also – I’d want more opportunity for young people. We’ve lost a lot of construction companies over the past few years, now even more just recently with the pandemic. These companies were training up the next generation. As an industry we really need more apprenticeship places and that’s why we’re speaking up about them, our industry is going to suffer if we can’t replace our retiring tradesmen.

What advice would you give Apprentice Tony Pearce if you could speak to him now?

I would probably say listen a bit more rather than think you know best. But I probably wouldn’t listen to that advice.